In my very brief career covering sports in the early 1990s, I was on sidelines, in press boxes and the occasional locker room.
I was almost always the only woman sportswriter at these games, but I was treated fairly and professionally. No smirks, harassment or inappropriate behavior that I can recall.
For that, I can thank women such as Melissa Ludtke, Jane Gross, Robin Herman, and the little old lady who sat not 10 feet from me in the Winston-Salem Journal’s old sports department, Mary Garber, the biggest trailblazer of them all.
Garber is featured prominently in a new book, “Who Let Them In? Pathbreaking Women in Sports Journalism” by Joanne Lannin, a former staff writer for the Portland Press Herald in Maine and the paper’s first and only woman sportswriter.
Garber’s biography is covered in the first chapter, the aptly titled, Why Mary Garber Matters. For those unfamiliar with Garber, she was among the first female sportswriters in the country, starting her career in sports journalism at the Twin City Sentinel in 1944.
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With most of the men on staff off to fight in World War II, the Knute Rockne-loving Garber saw an opening to move from the society pages to the sports section (The image of Mary covering debutantes still makes me chuckle). After a brief stint back in news, Garber returned to sports in 1946 and stayed there, writing for the Winston-Salem Journal until just a few years before her death in 2008 at the age of 92.
Garber faced a mountain of challenges as she infiltrated the male bastion of sports — she was barred from press boxes, denied entry into sports writing associations and had to craft all sorts of ways to get quotes from coaches and athletes after games because she wasn’t allowed in locker rooms.
For her fearlessness, longevity and tenacity, Garber won awards and had awards named after her, including the Mary Garber Pioneer Award given annually by the Association of Women in Sports Media.
Each year the award is given, Garber’s story is told again, Lannin said.
“I think people appreciate the fact that for so many years, she was toiling, if you will, out there by herself, really showing that women could do this,” Lannin said in a recent telephone conversation.
“Before Mary, there were women writing about sports but maybe from an angle of what you might find on the women’s page, like ‘What are women wearing to the games?’ And Mary was a fulltime beat writer, generating stories on her own and in that sense, she really was the first, and her longevity was pretty amazing.”
Garber’s chapter in the book sets the stage for what is to come, and it isn’t pretty. Change came slowly.
While Garber showed that women could write game stories and features, plenty of men — athletes, coaches, owners, fellow sportswriters — continued to resent their presence and behaved like cave men at a frat party.
Baseball slugger Dave Kingman had a box containing a live rat delivered to Susan Fornoff of the Sacramento Bee while she was in the press box in June, 1986.
Chicago Bear quarterback Jim McMahon called reporter Lesley Visser over to his locker one day and said he had a Christmas present for her. With his teammates circled around, she opened the package to find a black negligee.
Lisa Olson of the Boston Herald faced a barrage of degrading situations while covering the New England Patriots in 1990.
Once inside the locker room, a handful of players crept toward her, coming within inches and daring her to touch their private parts, Lannin wrote.
Olson, then 25, was accused of being a “looker,” a term players used for women sportswriters who they believed were stealing glances at these self-anointed Greek gods.
As if a naked nose tackle is something to behold.
“It was like the Wild West,” Lannin said of the 1970s and 1980s. “Even though a lot of the leagues had decreed that locker rooms be open to women reporters, that didn’t mean individual players weren’t going to be rude and harassing in their behavior. So you never knew what you were facing.”
Each of these women, by the way — Visser, Fornoff and Olson — are past winners of the women sports media association’s Mary Garber Pioneer Award.
Though I can recall no incident that made me uncomfortable, I’m not so naive to think that women sports reporters are no longer subject to harassment and degradation.
Leah Hextall, the first woman to serve as a play-by-play announcer for nationally televised NHL games, was subjected to a wave of verbally abusive comments on social media every time she called a game last season, she recently told The Athletic.
She called the comments vile and threatening.
“It wasn’t fun,” she told The Athletic about what should have been a dream assignment.
Which makes what Garber did back in the 1940s, ‘50s and ‘60s all the more remarkable.
Writing this story has brought back a wave of warm memories about Mary, the way she wore her ever-present ball cap crookedly atop her white hair, our chats about my oldest daughter, the time Billie Jean King came to the newsroom expressly to see her while I sat nearby, utterly gobsmacked at this meeting of legends.
How I wished I had asked this humble warrior where she found the courage to work through such hostility with grace and wit.
How I wish I had simply said, “Thank you, Mary.”